Kefir and Kombucha: These drinks are created by the action of dozens of microorganisms. If their health benefits remain uncertain, they fascinate more and more foodies for their unparalleled taste in the world of beverages.
“It’s a special niche”summarizes the researcher Christophe Lavelle, who studies kefir from a sociological and microbiological perspective at the National Museum of Natural History. “There is something very mysterious.”
What are kefirs and their cousins, kombuchas? They have in common that they are produced by the action of dozens of different bacteria and yeasts, which remain sweet for several days or weeks in water (for kefir) or tea (for kombucha). In kefir, these microbes are collected on soft, translucent grains. In kombucha, they are united on a “mother,” a viscous membrane similar to that used to turn wine into vinegar.
Each time, a colony will work with a unique balance to convert the sugar into new components that give rise to fizzy and acidic drinks. Of course, these fermentation mechanisms are also the basis of well-known drinks, such as beer. But the specificity of kefirs and kombuchas, in addition to their very low alcohol content, is the richness and diversity of microbes used for a single drink.
Good for health ?
You can make them yourself (forums exist to swap out kefir grains and kombucha mothers) or buy them. The market has developed strongly in Anglo-Saxon countries in recent years and is now gaining in countries such as France.
Behind the appeal of these drinks were mainly health reasons. Historic amateurs, as well as certain producers, boast a wide range of purported benefits, in particular thanks to the “probiotic” action that microorganisms would exert once they were in the digestive system.
But nothing proves it. Various studies (last date of 2018 in the journal) Annals of Epidemiology) have concluded that there is almost no work to seriously evaluate the real effects of these drinks on human health.
“There are many probiotics, it is rich in antioxidants, but does it really have an impact on health? I allow myself to doubt it.”
Nutritionist Anne-Laure Laratte
Also emphasizing that these drinks still contain a very small amount of alcohol and should therefore be avoided in children and pregnant women, she nevertheless acknowledges a nutritional importance, but not because of their direct effects.
“These are almost sugar-free drinks, so we will prefer that to soft drinks. It’s interesting to vary your drink instead of telling yourself: I’m tired of water, I’ll have Coke”
However, it is this angle that begins to interest the world of gastronomy. Some sommeliers realize that kefirs and kombuchas open up new possibilities for their customers. Their complexity of taste makes it possible to accompany (or almost) complex dishes without alcohol, where it would be unthinkable to drink a fruit juice that is very sweet by nature.
Argentine sommelier Paz Levinson, who works with star chef Anne-Sophie Pic, offers alcohol-free pairings in which kombucha plays an important role. This perspective also drives a new generation of manufacturers from the world of gastronomy, such as Hugo Chaise, who makes his drinks in the premises of the Poilâne bakery in Paris.
“Fermentation will really transform raw materials”like the tea used for kombuchas, and “brings new flavours”explains this 30-year-old, who worked in the kitchens of the emblematic Danish restaurant Noma, and says he designs his drinks like real dishes.
For example, “green tea goes towards white peaches, something hyper-floral”he notes, describing his taste work: “I decided to make a kiwi parsley. The kiwi is very round, bordering on fat on the palate, while the parsley is vegetal, almost peppery. It goes really well with that white flower thing.”
(Photo Credit: Premyuda Yospim/Getty Images)